Making all the decorative decisions for a Grade II-listed, 20-room house can challenge even the most seasoned renovator.
Charles and Emma Williams were midway through the revamp of Fields House, their late 19th-century Jacobethan-style home in Newport, Gwent, 11 years ago, when one choice was taken out of their hands in a rather unexpected way.
So struck by the home’s stone-mullioned windows, fabulous glass cupola, stone-carved corbels and general air of Victorian gothic drama, the production team for BBC1’s Sherlock – starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman – decided it was a must-have shoot location.
The crew swept in, armed with, among other things, some heavy black-flocked wallpaper with which they decorated the still bare walls of the master bedroom.
It made an effective backdrop for a scene in the episode A Scandal In Belgravia, in Sherlock’s second series, in which we saw actress Lara Pulver as dominatrix Irene Adler collapsing on the bedroom floor – and later sitting naked (well, apart from Louboutins and diamond earrings), in the home’s living room, with the Williams’ elegant walnut and gold-fabric chaise longue behind her.
‘As we were still in the middle of renovating when we were approached, the house acted as a blank canvas for the production designers,’ says Charles, a business consultant.
‘We had every plan to change that bedroom wallpaper as soon as filming had finished, but nearly a decade on, it is still up. I guess it suits the house.’
Fortunately, some of the disconcertingly eerie props – used by two Time Lords in subsequent productions – haven’t stuck around: Fields House has also been visited by the Tardis twice, once in a 2012 Doctor Who Christmas special, starring Matt Smith, and the downright creepy 2017 episode Knock Knock, with Peter Capaldi and David Suchet.
The home has also since featured in an episode of Casualty and BBC Wales drama High Hopes.
However, when Charles and Emma, a civil servant, bought the home in 2009 they hadn’t planned on hosting international movie stars and Daleks.
‘We have renovated about five properties over the years,’ Charles explains, ‘and were intrigued when we spotted a couple of photos of Fields House on a website.
‘We are always on the lookout for an interesting renovation project.’
When the couple first viewed the 1870s semi-detached house – an elaborate architectural confection of Elizabethan, Jacobean and Victorian gothic motifs, built as the entertaining wing for a grander home next door – it was in a parlous state.
As the lead had been stolen from the roof, the interiors were sodden, and the once-beautiful sash windows were boarded up. The glass in the domed cupola was smashed, and all the plumbing and wiring had been ripped out.
‘We knew this would be our biggest project to date,’ says Charles, ‘but we could see the potential immediately.’
Even during the very earliest stages of their restoration, the home was a magnet for TV crews. It featured in an episode of Original Features with Nick Knowles, who documented some of their most challenging renovation moments.
With an initial budget of about £1,000 per room, and a team of local master craftsmen, the Williams managed to restore the five-bedroom, four-reception home within four years – although they spent the first two winters with no central heating, just coal fires, to warm them.
‘Returning it to how it would have looked in its Victorian heyday, both structurally and decoratively, was the obvious thing to do,’ Charles says.
‘The traditional look was what suited the scale of the house best, and keeps things interesting.’
The original hand-painted blue and gold-starred glass of the cupola has been restored, drawing light down into the panelled and parquet-floored reception hall.
Full-length, shuttered sash windows in the bay window of the 25ft 7in-long drawing room overlook a Victorian pond, ‘which we discovered when we finally got round to clearing the overgrown garden,’ Charles says.
Gilt coving and gold-framed wall panels create an air of opulence.
The wood panelling in the dining room and the Italian marble fireplace in the study are grand features, but there are several details aficionados of period houses will love – there’s the original tiling and slate slab shelving in the kitchen, an intact Waygood Otis lift and the servants’ call bell and panel, in working order, found in ‘the maid’s room’.
Victorian furniture was bought on eBay and at local auction houses, and mixed up with pieces from Dunelm and even Ikea, with wall coverings in other bedrooms including intense floral and turquoise papers.
The home’s striking looks have led to it bringing in a second income stream – as a successful AirBnB rental it can fetch around £2,000 for a long weekend.
Fields House is, however, now on the market for £1.4million, as the Williams want the thrill of another project.
‘We tend to move on every decade or so, though we may not take on something quite as big as this again,’ Charles says. ‘We just love improving old houses, and making them work better.’
The Williams are not sure whether they’ll want to hire out their next property for locations, though. ‘It is fun watching the filming happening live on monitors,’ Charles muses, ‘If rather disconcerting sitting in a room and watching it being broadcast on your TV screen at the same time.’
Fields House is on the market for £1.4million through Fine & Country, fineandcountry.com
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